For Iraq, a Lesson from Africa

News Abroad

Mr. Catsam is a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Mr. Bruscino is a military historian.

No one's looking, because no one's inclined to look in such an unlikely place. But it turns out that there's much to learn about how to handle the Iraqi quagmire by looking to Africa -- and, of all places, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The lesson is simple and yet has been almost universally ignored by American politicians and military planners alike: If you focus too much on security and the mere appearance of democracy and do not work toward fostering the development of the full panoply of liberal institutions, strongmen will take over, as has happened in Africa. Security and elections are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Iraq's ultimate success. Winning hearts and minds is fine, but creating a vibrant civil society and stable institutions enables true democracy to flourish.
Fifty years ago, Africans were euphoric after they threw off the shackles of colonialism. Sober reality soon set in as many of their leaders succumbed to what we now refer to as "Big Man Syndrome." Rather than use the resources of the nation to develop infrastructure and strengthen institutions, leaders chose to provide patronage and line the pockets of an elite. Nowhere was this noxious trend more pervasive than in what was then known as Zaire.
For generations, Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seku, utilized the vast natural resources and potential wealth of his nation to enrich himself, to buy off potential foes and to run the army as his own Praetorian guard. Because Mobutu was a Cold War ally of the United States, a succession of American presidents turned a blind eye to the devolution of the Congo. Rather than build roads and bridges and railroads and airports for the betterment of the Congolese people, Mobutu utilized a dual strategy of anarchy and tyranny to maintain control.
Before long, Mobutu's terror filtered down to the lowest levels of society to the point where the military and police became infamous for stealing from the people, often at gunpoint, and civil servants refused to carry out even the most rudimentary aspects of their jobs without demanding bribes. Things did not improve, and in some cases got worse, under Mobutu's successors.
Like Iraqis under Saddam, the people of the Congo came to believe that rampant power and kleptocracy were the way of things. The only way to survive, never mind prosper, was to acquiesce in a system that before long came to feel natural. Generations grew up believing that Mobutu's way was the way things inevitably had to be.
But now, nine years after the overthrow and death of Mobutu, the people of the DRC, for the first time in nearly five decades, await results from a democratic election, and the possibility of historic change.
Iraqis look forward to their own independence from tyranny. But before 9/11, astute commentators warned about grandiose calls for democracy to heal all the world's ills. Democracy is but one aspect of free, stable societies. Fully developed systems require the rule of law, independent courts, guarantees of individual liberties and, especially, open economies. Ask the coalition forces in Iraq today or the people who celebrated the end of colonialism in Africa half a century ago: Voting is the easy part; the rest is where it gets hard.
That is especially true when the people who would be free have spent their entire lives under an authoritarian system. Saddam Hussein provided stability, but only through tyranny. He dealt with local unrest through terror and bribes, undermined rule of law, controlled the courts, violated individual liberty and dictated the economy. The degree to which Iraqis enjoyed freedom and wealth was based solely on the whims of Saddam and his cronies. All of this hampered the ability of the Iraqi people to embrace the fundamental institutions of free systems when Saddam was ousted. They lived their lives at the pleasure of the state. They know no other way.
Unlike the Congolese, who lived under a system that had already seen liberation go awry, the people of Iraq have an opportunity to develop a society with liberal institutions, where the rule of law governs, and where with democracy will come responsibility for the political classes and the masses alike. In recent days in the Congo, violence has set in between supporters of the two remaining candidates for the presidency, revealing how far that country has to go and reminding the world of the consequences of decades of disregard for establishing democratic institutions.

The people of Iraq and the Congo both face a historic opportunity, and one that the rest of the world should welcome. People who have their own property have a vested interest in their economy. People who have political rights have a vested interest in their political system. Having such interests means people have the motivation to maintain the institutions that protect that property and the freedom to run that economy.
Success in Iraq and Congo will come when the new leaders of those countries understand that their service in government is not simply an opportunity to enrich and entrench themselves. Success will come when instead of simply expecting some sort of government assistance, the people develop their own power and their own rights protected by leaders who respect the rule of  law. The Congolese have been waiting for nearly half a century; the Iraqis are just beginning.  They need patience; so do we.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

There is very little to disagree with in this article because it has so little substance.

"The people of Iraq and the Congo both face a historic opportunity," say these history professors, so eager to not to stick to history.

Yes indeed, and so does every bum who ever lived on skid row.

Thanks to the massive and serial ineptitude of the Bush Administration and its domestic dupes and rubber-stamps, tyranny in Iraq has been replaced by anarchy, civil strife, and terrorism.

The fact that "people who have their own property have a vested interest in their economy" or that "people who have political rights have a vested interest in their political system" or that 2+2=4 as long as Karl Rove is not the math teacher, is of little consequence to the future of Iraq, of America or any tangible challenge on the horizon for any country today.

Trevor Russell Getz - 10/10/2006

Of course, the Congo region has an intellectual tradition going back thousands of years itself... A more precise point is that it had few individuals trained to deal with the emerging cold war global realities created by the 'west' and the Soviets and the brutalities of the post-colonial global economy. I believe that is what your comment intended.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/9/2006

... Plus, after the death of Mobutu, whose murderous and corrupt, from top to bottom, dictatorship was benevolently supported by the US, the
latter superpower did not invade!
And that is the main reason of the relative success of the democracy, which in 50s morning of Kongo's revolution being embodied in Patrice Lumumba, who was physically eliminated on the advise of the Belgians and Americans (the latter could not forgive him asking Soviets for military help). As is it also known now, from the US archives, the President Eisenhower sought Lumumba's death and CIA made the attempt to poison first Kongo's democratically elected prime minister.

Nancy REYES - 10/9/2006

You miss one little thing in your comparison.
When the Congo got it's independence from Belgium, there were less than a dozen college graduates.
You simply cannot compare that to a country that has an intellectual tradition that goes back 3000 years.